The Moon and Sixpence- W. Somerset Maugham

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“Art is a manifestation of emotion, and emotion speaks a language that all may understand.”- W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence

I’d only ever read one Maugham before this (“Of Human Bondage”) but even with just that one read I could tell Maugham was a very special writer and destined to be one of my favourites. I picked up this thin book thinking it would be a quick, simple read, but I wasn’t prepared for the depth and profundity in it. There is a lot going on in this little book, lots to think about.

Reading the back of the book you’ll know that the main character in this book, Charles Strickland, was modelled after Paul Gauguin. There’s no way I would have guessed that for most of the book, until Strickland/Gauguin moved to Tahiti. Even without knowing much about Gauguin’s life, this book was interesting as it took us on a tour of his life, done by a narrator who operates as an unofficial biographer, taking us through Strickland/Gauguin’s life from England to Paris, and finally Tahiti.

Strickland is an awful person and extremely misogynistic. It’s been a while since I’ve read such an odious character in literature. I despised him:

“He was a man without any conception of gratitude.  He had no compassion.  The emotions common to most of us simply did not exist in him, and it was as absurd to blame him for not feeling them as for blaming the tiger because he is fierce and cruel.”

It was surprising to witness how the passion in Strickland seemed to remain dormant for years but eventually caused him to act like a man possessed and completely re-evaluate his life as that passion needed an outlet:

“That must be the story of innumerable couples, and the pattern of life it offers has a homely grace. It reminds you of a placid rivulet, meandering smoothly through green pastures and shaded by pleasant trees, till at last it falls into the vasty sea; but the sea is so calm, so silent, so indifferent, that you are troubled suddenly by a vague uneasiness. Perhaps it is only by a kink in my nature, strong in me even in those days, that I felt in such an existence, the share of the great majority, something amiss. I recognised its social values, I saw its ordered happiness, but a fever in my blood asked for a wilder course. There seemed to me something alarming in such easy delights. In my heart was a desire to live more dangerously. I was not unprepared for jagged rocks and treacherous shoals if I could only have change — change and the excitement of the unforeseen.”

Gauguin comes up a lot in discussions on primitivism and orientalism, and reading up on his time in Tahiti really leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. The discussion on place and how we might be searching for a place where we are free to be really spoke to me, but Gauguin being himself meant taking child brides in the tropics, and that reminded me of the fact that Europeans had/have free reign in some parts of the world all due to their perceived power.. But still, the idea that we can be perceived differently in different areas, and therefore be more suited to one area than another, is interesting:

“I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid certain surroundings, but they have always a nostalgia for a home they know not. They are strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood or the populous streets in which they have played, remain but a place of passage. They may spend their whole lives aliens among their kindred and remain aloof among the only scenes they have ever known. Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide in the search for something permanent, to which they may attach themselves. Perhaps some deep-rooted atavism urges the wanderer back to lands which his ancestors left in the dim beginnings of history. Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.”

It’s hard to summarize this book without bringing up the racist language. There were quite a few racial epithets which, I’m not sure spoke of Maugham’s insensitivity to different races, or just that he was reflecting the language and sentiments of the time. Either way, they were  shocking, and I could have done without them.

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5 thoughts on “The Moon and Sixpence- W. Somerset Maugham

  1. I read The Moon and Sixpence a while ago. As you mention, it’s a dense and complicated book and in many respects it is unpleasant, but I think this is a skill of Maugham that he was drawn to, and unflinching in his presentation of, unpleasant characters. I found Strickland equally unpleasant and his behaviour towards, and exploitative view of, the people of Tahiti was hard to read. At the same time, perhaps not unusual as you say for Europeans of that era (or any era, sadly, for that matter) and the sting in the tail is that the man is revered for it. Great review Rowena.

    1. Thanks for your comment and compliments:) You’re right about Maugham’s ability to really portray his characters well, warts and all. I’d like to read more about Gauguin’s life but I’m sure it won’t be easy to read about his time in Tahiti!

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